Human babies cannot talk (what would they even have to say, anyway?). However, they’re still able to communicate with adults through a variety of coos, peeps and other pitched sounds. That they can do so across a wide range of emotions is considered a hallmark of the uniquely human capability of language, but not so fast: Researchers from the University of Birmingham, UK and the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland have found that wild Bonobos can do the same thing.
The question is, are Bonobos more linguistically gifted than they seem, or are human babies as dumb as their propensity for sticking their fingers in light sockets suggests?
Compared to humans, most animals express themselves through sound across a narrow range of emotions. Territorial aggression, alerting other members of approaching predators, that kind of thing. Humans are obviously more nuanced (even from infancy), but the catch is that bonobos are our nearest living relatives.
Bonobos use something the researchers call a “peep” to communicate, and they do so in a wider variety of situations than most animals – feeding, grooming, travel, etc. Rather than a piercing shriek, these peeps are high-pitched, subtle and produced with closed lips. As with humans, it partially hinges on the recipient to interpret the meaning of the peep.
“Our data suggest that the capacity for functional flexibility has evolutionary roots that predate the evolution of human speech. We interpret this evidence as an example of an evolutionary early transition away from fixed vocal signalling towards functional flexibility,” the authors wrote.
In other words, rather than a uniquely human capability, the capacity for emotionally-based communication may have originated in the common ancestor linking bonobos and humans. That organism lived about 6 million years ago, so our bonobo cousins would have carried a primitive language ability for some time. If that’s the case, our sophisticated language may have deeper roots in primate language than previously thought.